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Going Alone: Executive Action Explained

Posted: Updated: Jan 28, 2014 10:33 PM
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One of the biggest announcements to come out of President Obama's State of the Union Address on Tuesday was his intention to use an executive order to raise the minimum wage for several hundred thousand federal employees.

It is a move that some lawmakers say will hurt the country's economy, but although it will be no doubt controversial, the president is legally within his right to move forward with the plan.

In this case, the experts say the president's decision to use his executive powers to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts is well within his constitutional authority. The executive branch traditionally handles contracting to execute matters of federal policy, and as head of that branch, the president has the power to make these kinds of decisions about those contracts all on his own.

That said, exercising power like this can be a tough sell for the American people.

"I'm a little concerned that he can step up and do that," said Abby Benevides, of Rapids City, Illinois, when asked about President Obama's intentions to issue this executive order.

"It makes me a little uncomfortable that we're not having more government involvement or say about it," she said.

But, the fact is, executive orders are used all the time.

"It's an important way to get things done," explained Dr. Stephen Klien, a professor of communications at Augustana College.

Dr. Klien says, for the most part, executive orders garner little public attention.

In many cases, they're used in foreign policy and diplomatic areas, so they are things most Americans never find out about. In other cases, they're used for relatively mundane matters like general agency operations - things most Americans don't care about.

"Executive orders are really, generally a non-controversial thing, but it depends on the context," Dr. Klien said.

Every president has used them, from George Washington issuing an executive order to create the Thanksgiving holiday to Dwight Eisenhower using one to define the design of the United States flag as what it is today; Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order freeing slaves; and, FDR issued more than 3,500 of them, including one establishing the Works Progress Administration.

President Obama has issued about 170 executive orders, even after criticizing his predecessor, George W. Bush, for overusing his executive powers to shape legislation as he signed it into law.

Dr. Klien explains it is easy to rail against executive powers when you are campaigning, as Obama was when he made those comments.

"However, when you get into the Oval Office you start seeing that presidents have certain authorities and powers for particular reasons," Dr. Klien said.

Whether using that power is the right thing for President Obama to do right now depends on who you ask:

"That's his prerogative," said one person we asked. "That's what he was elected for, to do things with those powers."

"I just am never in favor of a person - whether it's the president or who it is - making a move like that," countered Benevides.

"It's one of those instances where it is okay to do, but to make it sound okay to do, is a tougher hill to climb," said Dr. Klien.

Dr. Klien says he expects Republicans will play up President Obama's use of executive power to raise minimum wage as a talking point to prove he oversteps his bounds. He expects the president to turn that around on Congressional Republicans for failing to act.

The president has said he has no choice but to act alone, because of the frequent Congressional gridlock, and he has vowed to act without Congress to boost the economy.

"Whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do," Obama said in his speech Tuesday night.

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